Uganda's mobile telecommunications market is widely acknowledged as having grown at a terrific speed--at least by sub Saharan African standards. From almost insignificant numbers a decade ago, now more than 2.5 million Ugandans have cell phone handsets, a good number of them complete with the slick features and functions like cameras, radio, large memories for video and audio file storage, blue tooth, infrared and suchlike.   It's been all too good, quite an easy ride for the three big telecom companies--MTN, UTL and Celtel. But then, suddenly, it looks as though the end of this mobile phone bonanza is nigh, a reality that has these companies scrambling to break into new areas that will help them secure their own telecommunications market share and also sustain their commercial dynamism.

The differentiation of what the three network service providers offer to their respective clients is increasingly becoming thinner and hazier. It is less a question of what but who did it first. The new area of battle is the Internet. And here, it appears as though the game is already over even before it starts. MTN recently launched WiMAX broadband Internet access service, the world's latest wireless access technology. WiMAX enables the delivery of last mile wireless broadband access as an alternative to wired broadband like cable and Digital Subscriber Line, DSL.

"We are the first to deploy WiMAX on such a large commercial scale in the whole of Africa," MTN's Eric Van Veen said in an interview last week. WiMAX provides wireless broadband connectivity to fixed, nomadic and portable devices without the need for direct line-of-sight with a base station. Soon, the technology is expected to develop compatibility with mobile phones.

WiMAX is a cousin of the WiFi hotspot internet service which is currently offered by UTL and Celtel's Infocom at dozens of locations in Kampala and Entebbe. Currently, MTN has already extended the broadband internet access service to cover over 40 towns in Uganda, from Kampala city to the country's fringes of Kabale, Mbale, Soroti, Gulu and others.

It's not yet clear how the introduction of this technology will spur a revolution in Uganda's Internet and data transmission market. But two of the technology's unique abilities seem to illuminate for us the direction that WiMAX might take us.

For the first time, WiMAX will enable the delivery of Internet services to the most extreme rural and physically isolated parts of the country - something of an extra ordinary achievement by Sub Saharan African standards. It is now easy for instance for schools, hospitals, local administrations, NGO outposts and other institutions to connect to the worldwide informational web without the inconvenience and costs of a cable connection.

Secondly, these rural people will experience some of the best Internet access speeds now found only in a few city cafés and big companies. But even with WiMAX's remarkable speeds, MTN will not find it easy to win the Internet turf battle.

A month ago for instance Celtel launched, GPRS Edge, a wireless technology that transmits data to mobile handsets, PDAs, notebooks and even desktops. In an interview last week, Celtel's Head of Marketing and Corporate Affairs Martin Sebuliba said GPRS Edge was far superior and faster than the GPRS upgrade that MTN has been using. "It's a great service and the speeds are nice," he said.

Comparatively GPRS is also, in a way, more user-friendly. It is delivered over the GSM network and thus allows a person to move anywhere and still be able to access the web as long as you're within reach of the mobile network. "How more convenient can it be; getting the net wherever you find yourself," Mr Sebuliba mused.

UTL's Communications Director Mark Kaheru said that the company has an equally competitive high-speed internet service that its customers can rely on.

"Uganda telecom broadband is an extremely fast internet access, targeted at those that need and appreciate the value of extreme speed," a comment on UTL's website states. Customers, it adds, can experience speeds of up to 128Kbps. The WiMAX though clearly dwarfs this, since it offers speeds of up to 100Mbps, although in practice the speeds delivered to customers are lower.

The WiMAX broadband is bundled in three categories. A download of data of up to 200Mb (for light internet users) costs up to Shs115,000, a ceiling of 500Mb goes for Shs220,000 while a 1GB download, the maximum (suitable for corporate users) stands at Shs395,000. On top of that there's in installation fee of Shs295,000.

Celtel's GPRS Edge, while mobile, also involves considerable upfront costs. To use it on a notebook or desktop, one needs a GPRS Card which costs Shs340,000.

(SOURCE: The Monitor)